music Edinburgh Festival

Dissonance is fine, but brevity is sweeter, says Laurence Hughes
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The Independent Culture
The Dutch composer Louis Andriessen shocked a new music gathering recently by announcing that chromatic music was "out of date". Judging by this year's substantial showing of recent music at Edinburgh, few (pace John Adams) would agree. Most of it was firmly in the relentlessly dissonant, sub-12-tone tradition we all know so well.

This said, it was striking how different the results were in each case. Versus 1, Nachtmusik and the gargantuan Quodlibet by the Portuguese composer Emmanuel Nunes were all written in the 1980s and 1990s, but could well have been written 30 years earlier. The first two - chamber works played with commitment by the Ensemble Contrechamps - demonstrated a clarity of intellect unmatched by any great musical memorability.

As for Quodlibet, this massive work of exactly 56 minutes 12 seconds' duration (giant electronic clocks were disposed helpfully about the stage) gave a new meaning to the word "monumental". Not only did it go for a long time, but the McEwan Hall had virtually to be rebuilt to accommodate the greatly enlarged BBC Scottish SO. From my vantage point at the epicentre of things, next to the two conductors, my impression was that, once again, the structural and spacial ingenuity of the piece only partly compensated for its arid chromatic musical content.

Sunday's concert at St Bernard's was a different matter. Kurtag's Ruckblick (Hommage a Stockhausen) is an extraordinary work - a kind of retrospective of the Hungarian composer's life and work. Markus and Majella Stockhausen here collaborated in an apparently effortless rendition of this difficult, intense, expressionistic music. Kurtag's pieces are characteristically built up of very short and succinct sections (a rare and admirable practice in today's music); in Ruckblick fragments of song-cycles are juxtaposed with complete (very brief) sets of early piano pieces, bursts of folk- influenced material, and a weird recurring Kyrie. Dissonance was used dramatically and musically - not just as a matter of course - and the overall effect was of some kind of ritual, observed to the last obsessive detail.

Bernd Alois Zimmermann's rarely heard Requiem for a Young Poet was fascinating in quite another way. Once again fragments, live and on tape, were assembled into a gigantic collage - an effect reminiscent of Eliot "shoring fragments against his ruin" in The Wasteland (one can judge the success of Zimmermann's own attempt by his suicide eight months after the 1970 premiere of this grim but impressive work). The Usher Hall reverberated to the sound of massed choirs, instrumentalists, solo singers and speakers, while Michael Gielen presided impertubably over the whole vast edifice. The voices of Mao Tse-tung, Hitler, Stalin and Churchill mingled with the words of Mayakovsky, Aeschylus and James Joyce, interspersed with sections from the Requiem Mass, the whole ending in a Dona Nobis Pacem that was less like a prayer for peace than a cry of fierce desperation. Disturbing stuff: a requiem for a turbulent century, perhaps? A shocked silence at the end paid tribute to its hard-hitting quality.

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